Technology Salon

San Francisco

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

IVR and FM Radio: Low-Tech Ways to Reach Everyone on Earth


The title for the recent San Francisco Technology Salon, “The Low-Tech Way to Reach Everyone on Earth” suggests an enormously powerful statement – does the right technology exist today to reach everyone on earth? And what exactly is that technology? Thirty-three people from the Bay Area and around California attended the event to discuss the idea and find out if it is true.

We dove right into Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and SMS (basic text messaging) as two widespread ICT4D tools. IVR platforms present several advantages to development practitioners, researchers, donors and more importantly beneficiaries. IVR offers a method of communication and access to critical information in places with limited or no Internet connectivity.

IVR is often a cost-effective way to reach large numbers of people because all a target audience requires is a simple mobile phone. IVR is especially useful in gathering data through surveys where respondents can answer questions by simply entering a number on their phone’s keypad or recording a voice message. Mobile voice, as opposed to text, allows people to access information in their own local languages with relative ease.

One participant summed it up perfectly, saying access to information is life changing.

On the other hand, concerns were brought up in the conversation, such as how are organizations getting phone numbers, and does that mean that ads are delivered to these participants?

Two organizations present at the event, VOTO Mobile and Equal Access International, highlighted their own work using low-tech in hard-to-reach communities around the world. VOTO Mobile discussed their integrated IVR and SMS platform with an emphasis on IVR as a tool to reach vulnerable, marginalized populations in hard to reach places.

They shared a survey technique wherein one can use Random Digit Dialing (RDD) to send out an IVR survey to large sample of people to gather basic information for a project. In addition, they shared how in order to keep the cost of inbound IVR lines down, some of their partners have worked with private companies to include a brief ad in the recorded system to help offset the cost of airtime for an organization.

Equal Access shared how they use both IVR and FM radio to send “positive behavior change” messages to communities. Equal Access presented their three main use cases for IVR in their social and behavior change communications (SBCC) projects: IVR as a radio program’s audience engagement tool where people can call in and answer polls and leave voice messages, IVR as a way for audiences to listen to radio content on demand on their phone, and finally as a survey Monitoring and Evaluation mechanism.

I think the question going forward needs to broaden beyond what tech can we bring to communities in need. Indeed, we need to ask how the tools already in place are making a difference to individuals living in those communities?

As one participant highlighted this point saying, how can we be using these tools to empower local actors?

Low-tech solutions that reach communities around the world are exciting, but we must step back and examine what kind of difference the technology is making. It’s so much more than just reaching people – it’s ensuring that local language needs are met, that minority groups have equal access to information, and much more. Finding the right low-tech solutions is just as important as ensuring that these solutions empower those who use them.

By Jana Melpolder, a social media and marketing consultant in San Francisco.

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